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Discombobulated Edition: 13 quick takes during the midterm election home stretch in Wisconsin
The Bobby Newport-ification of Tim Michels, a State Senate candidate at the Capitol on Jan. 6, early voting rapidly approaching, and much more.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
There’s less than 20 days to go before Election Day, which means we’ve reached the point of the campaign where everything is just very…discombobulating. We’re here at The Recombobulation Area and we’re discoulated. This is what’s happening.
Longtime subscribers may recall these “Discombobulated Edition”-s of The Recombobulation Area as a more regular occurrence, but instead of a longer column on one topic, we’re going to run through a bunch of topics to try to make sense of it all.
So, let’s discombobulate.
1. Milwaukee has a new sheriff in town
The other day at a Rotary Club event in Milwaukee, speaking about crime in the city, Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels said “people are going to know there’s a new sheriff in town” if he wins the race.
Well, it turns out there actually will be a new sheriff in town, as soon as this weekend. Her name is Denita Ball.
She won the Democratic primary in August and is running unopposed in the general election in November because Republicans care so much about law enforcement and crime in Milwaukee – it's a top statewide issue, even! – that they did not field a candidate in this race.
Ball, who currently serves as the Chief Deputy, becomes the first woman sheriff in Milwaukee County’s history. Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas is resigning months before the end of his first term, as he is not seeking re-election to the post, months after a lackluster fifth-place finish in Milwaukee’s mayoral primary in February. He’s now taking a new job as Fiserv’s vice president of security for Wisconsin.
Nevertheless, the political implications of crime in Milwaukee have been shoved to the center of a number of statewide races, so it is rather curious to see how little Republicans actually want to make an impact on a local level in a role like this one. It’s a bit telling, don’t you think?
2. The Bobby Newport-ification of Tim Michels
Also at that Rotary Club event – at which the Milwaukee Press Club and other members of the press were not invited to come ask questions, as they did with a similar event the week prior featuring Gov. Tony Evers – Tim Michels continued delivering the vague, safe, surface-level promises that have become a staple of his campaign.
Every time Michels is pressed on the issues, his answers to many of these not-particularly-difficult questions is to fold into a fuzzy mess of maybes. His campaign is now bringing up reminders of Bobby Newport, Paul Rudd’s wildly unqualified, son-of-a-business-owner parody candidate on NBC’s Parks & Recreation.
It’s unclear whether he’s just playing things as safe as possible with this campaign or if he genuinely does not have a firm grasp of the issues. More and more as this campaign goes on, it seems like the latter. Which is not encouraging for someone who could very well become our next governor.
3. A Republican in the most closely contested State Senate race went to the Capitol on Jan 6
That Republican is Dave Estenson. We have the video from his Facebook Live. He said he was going to meet up with Derrick Van Orden, the Republican congressional candidate for the 3rd District (3:50 mark of the video, for those comments), who was on the grounds.
Estenson also spoke about his experience that day and shared photos of his time at the insurrection in a piece at the Trempealeau County Times later in January 2021.
Estenson is running against incumbent Democrat Jeff Smith in what is being projected as the tightest race in the State Senate. If Republicans flip the seat, they will reach a two-thirds supermajority threshold in the upper chamber. See our full preview of the race and the Senate here.
4. Tony Evers has correctly identified one of Wisconsin’s biggest problems
As we’ve written here at The Recombobulation Area endlessly almost since our inception more than three years ago, the local funding formula in Wisconsin is broken. While cities like Milwaukee get the attention for this – the sheer magnitude of the numbers for local funding are more pronounced in a city of 600,000 people and a county of nearly 1 million – it is a problem for communities across the state, who are cutting services or turning to referendums to address local-level issues that are going underfunded while the Republican-controlled state legislature sits on a surplus of more than $5 billion. It’s cool, though; Milwaukee’s County Parks budget hasn’t changed since the 1980’s; it’s totally fine, we’re doing great.
During last week’s first and only gubernatorial debate, Evers identified increasing shared revenue as the top priority for his next budget. He’s tried to raise it in both of his budgets during his current term, but Republicans in the legislature blocked the effort.
It speaks to Evers’ as a candidate for identifying a somewhat wonky issue as a top campaign priority that would begin to address one of the underlying structural problems with the state of Wisconsin, while Michels is out there promising that if he wins, “life will be better for everybody.”
Of course, no one is going to suggest that Tony Evers is some kind of sparkling orator who really WOW!-ed people during the debate, but he obviously understands the challenges Wisconsin is facing and can really get into the details about what to do about them in a way that Michels just can’t approach in any way.
Shouldn’t it matter that Evers is using this direct-to-voters platform to lay out a priority for his next administration after correctly diagnosing one of the state’s biggest problems? That’s what we should want from our governor.
And speaking of that lone gubernatorial head-to-head discussion…
5. Tim Michels was a disaster in the debate
Perhaps it was because the debate was buried on a Friday night, but it really didn’t seem to get much attention just how frighteningly awful Tim Michels was in his lone debate performance in the general election.
To say he was light on specific in this debate would be a massive understatement. There were so many moments where his answers amounted to “I would sit down with ____ when I get there.”
His answer on upholding elections was abominable, saying “I will certify any elections after I am elected governor.” His answer on potential conflicts of interest with Michels Corp., both in how he’d divest and how the company would bid on state contracts, was nowhere close to sufficient. His answer on the state budget surplus was a meandering mess. His answer on climate change veered right into denialism territory.
And in one of the few seemingly candid and not pre-rehearsed moments of his during the debate, responding to a question about the state’s deeply problematic worker shortage which threatens the very future of the state and has been an ongoing question stretching back several gubernatorial administrations, his answer was a bizarre riff on how we need to get “people off of their couches and get them back to work” because during the pandemic, “we created an entire class of lazy people.” This while the state’s unemployment rate has reached record lows in recent months.
If anyone was “lazy” during the height of the pandemic in 2020, it was his fellow Republicans in the legislature who took an extended vacation while families and businesses struggled.
All in all, an abysmal performance from the Republican candidate.
6. Here comes Barack Obama
There have been six presidential elections in Wisconsin this century. Less than 1% separated the candidates in four of those races. The other two were in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama won by 13% and 7%, respectively.
So it is a big deal when the former president — the most successful president at the ballot box in the state in decades — gets involved in Wisconsin’s elections. Obama will be coming to Milwaukee for a rally on Saturday, Oct. 29, to support Tony Evers, Mandela Barnes and the Wisconsin Democrats.
No one has been able to drive turnout in the city of Milwaukee quite like Barack Obama. Turnout in the city both in percentage and in raw numbers was even higher in 2012 than it was during Obama’s landslide victory in 2008. That really goes to show the type of impact he had on voters in the city. Obviously, it’s different when he’s not on the ballot, but the fact that he is coming to Wisconsin at a time when these races are tight is significant.
Obama is not only rallying with the top-of-the-ticket candidates, but is cutting TV and radio ads for Evers and Barnes.
For Barnes, it has to be an incredibly significant moment for him, not only because he’s looking to gain ground against Ron Johnson, but because Barnes credits Obama’s 2004 DNC speech as a main reason why he seeked out a career in public service.
There’s only been one other Black man representing a Rust Belt state in the Senate since Barack Obama was there. Mandela Barnes getting the former president’s endorsement in his campaign to make history is an important moment.
7. Why is Cleta Mitchell still on the Bradley Foundation board?
Cleta Mitchell resigned in disgrace from Milwaukee-based law firm Foley & Lardner in early 2021 after it was revealed that she was on the call with former president Donald Trump to try to reverse the election results in Georgia. She’s spent a great deal of time since working in the election denial circuit, even recently going on Steve Bannon’s podcast to share some plans about training election observers in ways that seem potentially hostile. She also recently gave an interview talking about why some people shouldn’t be able to vote, and that the process should not be easy and hassle free. She is clearly a threat to democracy.
So why is she still on the board of directors for this powerful and influential “nonprofit” based in Milwaukee?
8. Is a vote for Tim Michels really a vote for the Robin Vos agenda?
Tim Michels has said that the more than 100 bills vetoed by Tony Evers during the last session would be bills he would take up and potentially sign if he were to become governor.
Many of these bills were performative base-rilers that everyone following the legislature knew were passed with no intention of them ever becoming law. But others were serious efforts, and Evers did some of his most important work of his term as the goalie, preventing some of these damaging, problematic bills from becoming law. And while there is the looming threat of a potential supermajority that would complicate things if Evers were to be re-elected – we’ve written a bit about this! – it’s worth asking who would really be driving the agenda if Tim Michels were to become governor.
Because the thing about Robin Vos and the Republican-controlled legislature is they have been a nightmare for Wisconsin and they have very few supporters across the state. Robin Vos’ statewide favorability rating the last time Marquette polled him in August was just 15% favorable. A net minus-16. Is this someone Wisconsin really wants to have in the drivers’ seat for the future of this state? He’s proven himself to be nothing but contemptible and catastrophic as a leader in the decade-plus he’s been Speaker, and while he endorsed Rebecca Kleefisch in the primary, it’s his Assembly — where we see extreme anti-democracy measures like the Gableman “investigation,” where they’re shutting out the opposition to the point where it’s almost impossible for Democrats to even get a public hearing, where Republicans take a nine-month break every two years, endless disfunction — that would in many ways be advancing an agenda in Madison. It’s a frightening thought!
9. The Recombobulation Area on the radio (and elsewhere)
Since we last published a newsletter, I joined Nada Elmikashfi on WORT’s Public Affair, Devil Radio for “Dueling Tangents,” and as always, joined WCPT AM’s Patti Vasquez. Listen here and here and here. Also this week, I moderated a conversation about protecting democracy with former attorney general Eric Holder and Democratic Minority Leader Greta Neubauer.
10. Maybe clean up that Twitter account if you’re running for higher office?
Millennial candidates should know this!
11. The Uihlein/Hendricks effect
These two have poured an insane amount of money into Wisconsin, particularly for the Senate race. Hendricks, the owner of ABC Supply Co., has spent nearly $16 million to fund a PAC that’s mostly been attacking Mandela Barnes, and Dick Uihlein, who has also been funding that same PAC, is the biggest Republican donor of the entire midterm election cycle, anywhere, spending nearly $55 million, according to OpenSecrets and Exposed by Center for Media and Democracy.
You probably know by now that they received a combined tax break of more than $200 million in a single year thanks to what Ron Johnson considers his biggest accomplishment in his 12 years in office, but it bears repeating.
11. Here are a few campaign home stretch must reads:
Dan Kaufman, The New Yorker: ‘Can Organized Labor Win Back Wisconsin?’
Jessie Opoien, CapTimes: ‘The political paradox of Ron Johnson
James Causey, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: ‘Senator Johnson, you can be critical of America and still love it. Your cheap shot shows you don’t understand that.’
Russell Berman, The Atlantic: ‘What Democrats Don’t Understand About Ron Johnson’
James Wigderson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: ‘I’m a lifelong Republican but sometimes party loyalty asks too much. I’m voting for Mandela Barnes and Tony Evers.’
12. The Bucks season started. LET’S GOOOO!!!
We needed the distraction this week of a Milwaukee Bucks win in Philadelphia. It’s Year 10 for Giannis in Milwaukee. What a gift this era of basketball in this wonderful city the Antetokounmpo Era has been.
13. Early voting in Milwaukee starts Tuesday, Oct. 25
Voting by mail has already begun in Wisconsin, but early voting begins on Tuesday at several locations.
The following seven locations are open for early voting from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends.
Midtown Shopping Center, 5740 W Capitol Dr
Zeidler Municipal Building, 841 N Broadway
American Serb Hall, 5101 W Oklahoma Ave
Good Hope Library, 7715 W Good Hope Rd
Washington Park Library, 2121 N Sherman Blvd
Flores Hall, 2997 S 20th St
Clinton Rose Senior Center, 3045 N Dr Martin Luther King Jr Dr
Early voting is also open at Fiserv Forum at the corner of 6th and Juneau on select days. Hours are:
Tues., Oct. 25; Thurs., Oct. 27; Thurs., Nov. 3; Fri., Nov. 4: 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Sat., Oct. 29, Sat., Nov. 5: 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Beginning Oct. 31, early voting will also be available two more locations.
Social Development Commission (SDC), 1730 W North Ave
Monday, Oct. 31 - Friday, Nov. 4: 9 a.m. - 3 p.m.
UW Milwaukee Student Union, 2200 E Kenwood Blvd
Monday, Oct. 31 - Friday, Nov. 4: 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Get ready to vote, everyone. It’s almost time.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.